Making jokes about dead people is considered disrespectful and traditionally frowned upon, but not in the small Romanian town of Sapanta. The villagers here have learned to embrace death with humor, as evident from the brightly colored tombstones in the local cemetery with epitaphs that often contain short funny rhymes full of wit and poking fun at the dead, telling their life stories or revealing their dirty secrets. One epitaph read:
"Underneath this heavy cross
Lies my mother in law poor
Had she lived three days more
I’d be here and she would read
You that are passing by
Try not to wake her up
For she comes back home
She’ll bite my head off
But I’ll act in the way
That she will not return
Stay here my dear
The tradition was started by the village carpenter Stan Ioan Patras who was tasked with building the crosses and tombstones out of oak. After attending the traditional three-day-long funerals villagers would gather at the local watering hole to drink and tell stories about the deceased. Patras started turning these stories into brief poems and began carving them onto the oak slabs. He scrawled his first verse on a tomb around 1935. He continued creating them until his death in 1977, and is estimated to have built in excess of 800 limerick-filled tombs. After his death, his apprentice Dumitru Pop has taken over and has been continuing this unique tradition ever since.
Nowadays, when someone in the village dies, the family comes to Dumitru Pop and asks him to create a cross, which he hand-carves from oak in the small workshop behind his house. He paints the oak slab blue and decorates it with floral borders and a riot of colors. He then paints an image depicting the person's life and composes a poem. Pop alone decides what the picture will portray and what the verse will say. His poems often have a touch of dark humor, telling witty stories of infidelities, indiscretions and a fondness for alcohol.
The tomb of Gheorghe Basulti, the butcher, is pictured chopping a lamb with a cleaver, and a pipe at his lip. Underneath it is written:
“As I lived in this world,
I skinned many sheep
Good meat I prepared
So you can eat freely,
I offer you good fat meat
And to have a good appetite.
Ioan Toaderu loved horses, but, he says from beyond the grave:
One more thing I loved very much,
To sit at a table in a bar
Next to someone else's wife.”
Even tragic stories are beautifully remembered, as in one famous tomb of a 3-year-old girl who was killed in an auto accident. Her epitaph flashes with anger:
“Burn in hell, you bloody taxi
That came from Sibiu.
Of all the places in this country
You had to stop right here.
By my house you hit me so
And sent me to the death below
And left my parents full of woe.”
Pop said that no one has ever complained about his verses. "It's the real life of a person. If he likes to drink, you say that; if he likes to work, you say that ... there's no hiding in a small town," Pop said. “The families actually want the true life of the person to be represented on the cross."
Today, the so called “Merry Cemetery” is part of the local sightseeing circuit, and receives thousands of tourists every year.
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